Move the cat, not the milk: Brexit offers an opportunity to reform public sector PR procurement

Every PR firm that provides services to the public sector will have some experience of EU procurement rules.

Brexit offers the opportunity to unpick Byzantine procurement processes, argues Andy Sawford
Brexit offers the opportunity to unpick Byzantine procurement processes, argues Andy Sawford

Complex, expensive, long-winded and often self-defeating, Brexit provides an opportunity for reform.

The value of tenders on the EU’s database for public procurement is currently around 5 per cent of UK GDP, so it is no surprise that both the UK Government and European institutions are considering future models after Brexit.

Under the present system, operating across 28 different countries, complexity is inevitable, if confusing.
Financial thresholds are variable and any one of five different technical procedures will need to be followed.

Layer onto this the tendency for public bodies such as the NHS, local authorities or Whitehall departments to seek to use their own common procurement framework for all public tenders, and you end up with a Byzantine system.

In one recent PR tender process, applicant companies were asked to set out, in detail, their steel procurement policies.

The documents were clearly designed for an altogether different project, building a bridge perhaps, and they hardly seemed relevant to PR.

Even those that do ask questions that are more PR related, often seem to ask the wrong question, or the right questions in the wrong order.

In one recent PR tender process, applicant companies were asked to set out, in detail, their steel procurement policies.

Andy Sawford, managing partner of Connect

The great CS Lewis, in the Voyage of the Dawn Treader, wrote: "One day the cat got into the dairy and twenty of them were at work moving all the milk out; no one thought of moving the cat".

I’ve read many invitation to tender (ITT) documents that seem to ask how to move the milk rather than the cat.

If Brexit opens up a window to put in place new rules, I’d suggest three simple reforms.

First, raise the qualifying financial thresholds, so that smaller PR contracts and projects are not subject to full procurement processes.

Second, streamline tenders to focus on what matters most and avoid using generic procurement questions.

Third, end the incumbent advantage. There is nothing more frustrating than the feeling that an incumbent was a shoe-in from the start.

If there is a high likelihood that an incumbent will be reappointed, it would be better to give them a contract renewal opportunity before opening up a competition.

This could be achieved with a review of the quality of delivery and a streamlined market testing exercise on price.

If a competition goes ahead, then it is important to recognise and offset the incumbents advantage, such as existing relationships, insights and understanding of the client, by involving ‘neutrals’ in the process.

PR companies are not forced to participate in these tender exercises of course, but they do so because the contracts are attractive.

Work for the public sector is secure, leads to opportunities to work with many talented and committed comms professionals, and do interesting work.

The competition element itself also a motivator to participate and gain the reputational benefits of winning.

I had a great aunt who entered lots of prize draws, saying "someone’s got to win it".

Whilst this can also be said of all public sector procurement, it would be nice to think that the process is fairer than an Ant and Dec phone-in.

Implement some basic reforms, and we might even find that simpler procurement improves competition, value and outcomes.

Andy Sawford is managing partner of Connect


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